Pablo Bachelet | Cuban Colada
Robert Muse, a lawyer who advises corporations on doing business in Cuba, believes the next U.S. president can quickly overturn most sanctions against the island without consulting Congress.
Conventional wisdom says the executive branch surrendered to Congress the ability to lift the embargo in 1996, when the Helms-Burton Act was passed. The legislation says Cuba must meet stern standards like holding free and fair elections and not being ruled by Fidel or Raul Castro before being rewarded with a lifting of sanctions. This came to be known as “codifying” the embargo.
At a briefing for journalists arranged by the National Foreign Trade Council, a business lobby group that opposes unilateral sanctions, Muse said no presidential candidate has so far shown any appetite to substantially change U.S. policy on Cuba. Congress has likewise shown no inclination to challenge President Bush’s hard line on Cuba.
But once elected, Muse said the next president might look for a Nixon-like China legacy, recalling the former president’s historic outreach to the Asian giant. This, he said, could happen without involving Congress.
Helms-Burton left a big loophole by giving the executive branch the ability to issue licenses to trade with Cuba. So the embargo could still be in place, Muse argues, but the president could issue licenses that , say, allow U.S. oil companies to invest in Cuba or let U.S. firms import Cuban cigars.
Lifting the travel ban for most U.S. citizens is more complicated, Muse says, because a 2000 law that allows Cuba to purchase U.S. food and medicines barred the executive from issuing travel licenses beyond certain categories, like Cuban Americans, journalists and lawmakers. But even here, Muse said, the future president could allow more “people-to-people” cultural and student exchanges.
The next president “would begin with some baby steps” by toning down the anti-Castro rhetoric, allowing more cultural exchanges and seeking to resolve expropriation claims.
“With enough of those, we can talk about ending the embargo,’’ he said, which could lead to a U.S.-Cuba bilateral treaty that would then need to be ratified by the U.S. Senate.
Muse says the next president will have to abandon any hope to “mollify’’ Cuban Americans in South Florida. “You’ve got to decide to do it and take the heat.’‘